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Who Paid for the Libyan Afterparty?

It’s now been nearly one year to the day since the official end of the Libyan civil war. What a difference that year has made for nearby Mali, where Islamic militants now control a significant amount of territory in the northern part of the country, partially due to weapons and training acquired during the Libya campaign.

A special Reuters report examines how Mali’s Islamist groups have gone from a negligible force to the strongest group in the region in the span of just the past year. Regional instability alone did not give al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) the wherewithal to grow. Instead, the report states, AQIM has been financed through drug trafficking and ransom payments (mostly from the West). This is no small matter: the ransom payments seem to have provided the bulk of the funds, although governments in the region are reluctant to admit it:

A Swiss government report in 2010 confirmed the country had spent 5.5 million Swiss francs ($5.9 million) the previous year to free two hostages held in Mali. A separate parliamentary statement revealed that about two million francs went on paying Swiss staff involved in the operation. A spokesman for the department of external affairs declined to say where the rest of the money had gone. . . .

The money has allowed the group to buy food, fuel, weapons and favor among local populations in remote zones of Mali’s north. Fees have risen, too – AQIM is currently demanding 90 million euros ($117 million) for the release of four French workers seized from a uranium mine in Niger in late 2010.

The group often pays other kidnapping groups a smaller ransom and then asks for a larger sum from Western governments, says Reuters. At the same time, AQIM has been raising cash by trafficking hashish, cocaine, and heroin:

Traffickers arrested in Mauritania last year told authorities there that a convoy of hashish would have to pay $50,000 to pass through AQIM-controlled territory, according to a Western law enforcement official in the region.

But few people in Gao or Timbuktu now differentiate between criminals and jihadists. Essayouti said he had witnessed how the two cooperate. “When AQIM came into Timbuktu, we saw that they were together. The drug traffickers and AQIM look after each other.”

AQIM has spent the money on weapons and other supplies needed to beat out other local militant groups, and to pay the families of child soldiers. They now control a section of Mali about as large as France, and can charge high prices to move drugs and further bolster their position.

Meanwhile, the French have been increasingly concerned about AQIM’s growing power and influence in Mali. Soon enough French drones will be humming above AQIM territory, as both sides prepare for an invasion.

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